Biking in Provence

Working for Backroads has been a rollercoaster ride, but the biggest perk is definitely Provence. With our head office and training happening every spring in Pernes-les-Fontaines, I have the perfect excuse to visit Provence in April every year. It’s the time of year when the weather is perfect, the lavender is about to blossom, and tourism hasn’t gotten busy so theres plenty of wine to taste and roads to cycle.

enjoing the Loire

I flew into Paris and visited a friend in Loire to warm up my bike butt, cycling thru the Loire Valley for some wine tasting and sunbathing. Then I was off to Provence to bike Ventoux, or atleast try…

its all about the kit…

There’s a kind of unspoken rule that cycling to the top of Mont Ventoux is part of the Backroads’ family right of passage – nearly everyone has done it, and they time themselves and do it again if they think they can get a better timer. I think the record in our community is 1hr36mins.

Kevin and I in Bedoin about to start our climb

I took a cool 3.5 hours, with lots of selfie stops and pee and snack breaks, but as the temperature dropped gradually with our ascent, the 1909m top was too cold to stay too long, so it only took 30 mins to fly 21kms back down to Bedoin. I was lucky to have Kevin with me, who had cycled Ventoux twice before, so he knew the best way and pep talked me most of the way up.

on the top of Ventoux!

I had all the right gear, thanks to Backroads, including a padded butt and a performance bike, so I didn’t even hurt the next day. I decided to celebrate the accomplishment with a little wine tasting in Beaumes-de-Venise with a couple of other Backroads friends, and finally learned how to use clip pedals. After that, I finally feel like Im qualified to be a bike guide… or atleast I can fake it til I make it since I look the part.

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Cycling Speyside: Whisky tasting on a Giant

Scotland was one of my first European countries that I visited last in 2006, but only went to Edinburgh and Glasgow. I remember not understanding a word of Glaswegian, so it seemed safer to fly into Edinburgh. Then Wow Air went bankrupt, 4 days before departure, so instead of flying for pennies thru London, I splurged on the direct flight from KEF with Easyjet. I loved arriving on a spring day, where a very young city rode bikes to and fro and lined up at McDconalds to buy tea.

Edinburgh

I made a friend last year thru Backroads, the young Scottish clone of Icelandic footballer Rurik Gislason. More than being beautiful, he was a biker, and helped me set up my home on wheels for a week-long Speyside bike tour. I stayed the first and last nights at his in Edinburgh, but spent 6 days, 5 nights cycling the whisky highlands on a beautiful blue Giant.

my home on wheels in Speyside

On the train north, I stopped for half a day in Aberdeen. I visited the beach and a friends favourite pub, filling up on carbs for all the cycling ahead. My tour started and ended at Elgin train station, where I cycled down to Rothes, a small village near Glen Elgin where I found a hostel, the Aqua Play bunk house. My first tasting and tour was at Glen Moray at 9:30 am, a bit early for most but perfect to start a day of biking. I carried onto Macallan, where tours were sold out, so I had a tasting and gourmet lunch inspired by El Celler de Can Roca, the three-Michelin starred restaurant in Girona, Spain. I stopped at Aberlour, before heading to Speyside camp where I was the only lonely soul pitching a tent. I had dinner and more whiskey tastings at the Highlander Inn bar in Craigellachie, home to John Dewar & Sons, where I made some more Scottish friends to reconfirm I was crazy to be camping this time of year.

cycling thru the highlands offered lots of highland cow encounters

I spent a night there before going to Glenfiddich. I rode the tourist train in and out of Dufftown (mostly to give my butt a break) to Strathisla Distillery, owned now by Chivas brothers and one of, if not the oldest, distilleries in Speyside. From there I rode thru Cairngorm park to get to Tomintoul town in the highlands, where snow from last week was still scattered on the sides of the road.

the weather was always on my side

Day 4 was spent riding back down, thru the Cairngorms winding along the River Avon, where traffic was finally at a minimum. The narrow roads sometimes made biking a bit unsafe, but the cooperative weather never made me doubt for a moment the trips perfect timing. I tasted at Glenlivet and Cardhu with a bartender friend I had made in Rothes, and went back to my tent at Speyside campground that night.

the stills at Glenfarclas

My last speyside distilleries were Glenfarclas and Cragganmore, and by this time, I felt I could have led my own distillery tour. Every distillery had their own niche blurb about their copper stills or water source, but all the whisky was excellent, all the tour guides knowledgable, but the increasing discomfort of heartburn from tasting whisky all day every day made me relieved the trip was near over.

pedestrian traffic while hiking to Arthurs seat

On the train back south, I went thru Inverness and the highlands, thru the most scenic landscapes pulled right out of a Game of Thrones episode. I returned my blue Giant in one piece, with all of my belongings still attached, but was most surprised by the fact that not a single drop of rain had fallen yet. To my pleasure, my last day in Edinburgh was spent hiking in the sunshine.

Winter is not coming

Today was the first day the nights are longer than the days. We had no summer in June or July, and finally it arrived in autumn. The first snow dusting the tops of Esja mountain Reykjavik fell last night, a month later than last year. But its still in the teens, and the sun has been shining more hours today than all 30 days in June.

looking for sheep in the highlands is easy to do when theres almost no snow

The sheep gathering has begun in most corners of the country. The north began rounding up the first week of September, but riding in a tshirt and getting sheep to waddle home one hundred kilometers in a wooly bunch is unusual. Wearing sunblock on a ride in the highlands when you know there’ll be frost at night seemed unconventional, but totally necessary.

some stubborn sheep have decided they wont be chased home and found an impossible place – a common problem when the weather is this nice

The northern lights, however, arrived much earlier than normal. This was the soonest I’ve seen them, August 15th, and again the 17th and 21st. The entire sky turned flickering shades of green on September 3rd, much to the delight of 29 Swiss tourists I woke up to see them.

biking by the Blue Lagoon on an extra sunny day

Biking around Reykjavik has been glorious, now that there’s finally good weather. Though its strange to remember that nightfall has crept up on us, and biking home at 9pm without headlights makes me feel uneasy, especially knowing that next week it will be dark by 8pm. It’s a shame that Nautholsvik, the local man-made beach with a hot tub and steam room, is open every day and free only during the summer season, which they’ve decided ends August 15th. That was probably the first day of summer, but now its only open 4 times a week and costs 650kr to use.

riding to the beach is a must on a sunny autumn day

Winter is not coming, since its finally summer in September. Autmn has yet to arrive, with the grass still green and the trees still full of luscious leaves. I hope autumn comes in winter, and winter gets skipped right to spring. But that’s pretty wishful thinking in a country that typically has 2 seasons – winter, and not winter.

Bike Training in Provence

Provence is a place where the name alone triggers the smell of lavender and dreams of endless vineyards. I’d never been there before, but thats exactly what it was, plus some. There were meadows of red poppies as far as the eye could see, olive trees and strawberry fields, and picturesque villages on hill tops seemingly unchanged for hundreds of years.

Vines, poppies and an olive tree

I stayed between Carpentras and Pernes-les-Fontaines, visiting nearby Avignon, Monteux and Blauvac to name a few. Dinners included red wines from nearby Chateuneuf-du-Pape and freshly picked, local asparagus and artichokes. I stayed with 23 amazing individuals in our own Chateau, with a courtyard fit for a regal wedding, and we were all given performance street bikes that weighed less than my right arm to use as transport.

Practicing my French Duck face

During the days, we had a combination of hard and “soft” skills training, everything from bike mechanics to public speaking. We were on our way to become tour Leaders, not guides, since “leaders” implies we also have co-leaders and teamwork skills. We had to learn to be interested, not only interesting, and speak about our regions and activities with passion that couldn’t be staged. We learned how to use an intraweb interface that takes me back to the days of the internet in 1999 – its extremely mind boggling to filter through html links, url sites that cant be reached, tens of thousands of pages of information, and other trip resources without google.

My training group, aka Missy Elliot

Our group was mainly European, plus a few dual citizen North Americans, and about two-thirds female. Everyone spoke two or more languages, and the collective travel experience and skills in that group made all of us feel individually inadequate. I made some lasting friendships, and others I’ll never see again, and two of us didn’t even make it thru training and returned home with an abrupt end to their Backroads career.

Just another picture perfect Provence town

It’s funny how France keeps calling me back; first, a spontaneous backpacking trip in Bretagne over New Years, and now, the opportunity to get paid to learn about bikes and cycling in Provence. I thank Backroads for the opportunity, and can’t believe I’ve started making money while traveling to new places in my favourite countries.